Metal Gods

The other day I mentioned randomly selecting Angel of Retribution on my iPhone and playing it to my daughter, and realising that I had a fellow head-banger in the family. After diving into online writing about Judas Priest and discovering That Hashtag Show’s Judas-Priest-a-thon from last year, sampling their old and new albums as I went, I reminded myself of the extraordinary opening title track of Painkiller, which sounded as fresh as ever; from there, YouTube’s algorithm revealed its standing as one of the best First Listen/Reaction video prompts of all. If anything warranted a Metafilter post, it was this.

September 1990. Judas Priest, the world’s biggest heavy metal band, had released some patchy albums since their peak years of 1976–84, with a turn to pop metal and a follow-up anchored by a drum machine. The previous month, they’d been embroiled in a trial claiming that subliminal messages on an old album had driven two youths to suicide. A week after the judge threw out that case, the band released one of their finest albums, and in its title track, arguably their finest song: Painkiller. Now, thirty years later, it’s the subject of a delightful YouTube reaction video by vocal coach and opera singer Elizabeth Zharoff, who says, “This will be my very first time hearing Judas Priest and Rob Halford, so I’m quite excited.” If you haven’t heard either yet, why not make it yours?

Alternatively, you could watch reactions from Mr. Rock N Roll, Hip-Hop Head, Geordie Dean, Kurtis B. Music, Rightfully Kyle, The Adventures of TNT, Rome Life Reactions, JayVee TV, or dozens of others on YouTube. Or you could watch all of them, as an excuse to listen to “Painkiller” again and again and again.

Singer Rob Halford left the band after the Painkiller tour, but triumphantly returned to the fold with 2005’s Angel of Retribution, and is still rocking out in his late sixties: 2018’s Firepower was hailed as their best album since his initial departure.

The depth of Priest’s catalogue is shown by the lack of consensus over their best album: Ultimate Classic Rock, Metal Nation and Classic Rock History pick 1980’s British Steel, Consequence and That Hashtag Show pick Painkiller, Kerrang and Loudwire pick 1984’s Defenders of the Faith, and Louder picks 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance. Stained Class (1978), Killing Machine/Hell Bent for Leather (1978/9) and Sad Wings of Destiny (1976) round out the critics’ favourites, but even their lesser albums boast some killer tracks.

As with any band that’s been around for fifty years, there’s so much more to Priest lore. They’ve recorded a double album about Nostradamus, two albums with the lead singer of a Priest tribute band, and three unreleased songs with UK pop producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Rob Halford formed three new bands after Painkiller and has recorded not one but two heavy metal Christmas albums. Guitarist Glenn Tipton recorded two albums with the late John Entwistle of The Who and the late drummer Cozy Powell. Guitarist K. K. Downing, who left the band in 2011, has formed his own Priest with two other former members, with an album promised this year. Drummer Scott Travis, who joined the band for Painkiller and also backed Halford’s band Fight, also deserves special mention (that’s his amazing drumming you hear opening, closing, and throughout “Painkiller”), as does new guitarist Richie Faulkner, who was the arranger on an album by the oldest heavy metal performer in history.

It’s time to raise the pitchfork cross and hail the metal gods of Judas Priest. Come forth, all defenders of the faith!

I only posted half of the reaction videos I’d found; the others were by No Life Shaq, Non Stop David, David Hoopsick, Ryan and George of Lost in Vegas, Van of the LFR Family, NorthernEar, ChemicalReactions, Andy and Alex, Mat and Chels, Steph and Jay, Kel and Rich, Claire and Walker and Sharisse Queen Bee. A commenter at Mefi wondered why there were so many people creating reaction videos. I suspect it’s a combination of the place of YouTube in young people’s aspirations nowadays—every kid wants to be an influencer, the way so many in the 1970s wanted to start a band—and the fact that it’s such easy content to create (if you do just a straight reaction, that is, without much critical insight—Zharoff’s video is more informed and fascinating, which was why I highlighted it). Plus, because it counts as criticism, the inclusion of the original songs would be fair use in the US, and the constant stopping and starting of the music might be avoiding automated infringement-detection algorithms, so the videos aren’t getting immediately pulled after DMCA takedown requests (I’m guessing).

Other commenters fleshed out the thread with extra angles on the band and their music, such as Rob Halford’s late-’90s coming out and Glenn Tipton’s recent Parkinson’s diagnosis. I decided against highlighting these in the main post, or other talking points like K.K. Downing’s falling out with the band or the early history pre- and circa-Rocka Rolla, because there was already so much to consider, but was hoping that others would come to the party with some of it. Judging from some of the links that surfaced in the thread, they’re great interview subjects, especially Halford. I’m tempted to track down his and Downing’s recent autobiographies now.

After a lifetime of listening to other music, most of it not metal, it’s been a blast to remind myself what Priest meant to me as a teenager in the early 1980s: listening to their 1978–84 albums endlessly, thinking Defenders was the best metal album ever, being disappointed by Turbo despite its great opener, liking Ram it Down more than most people seem to, and then being utterly floored by Painkiller as the new decade dawned. Those reaction videos brought me pure joy, as thirty years of alternative rock, electronica, jazz, classical and pop rolled back to expose my beating metal heart.

16 April 2021 · Music